My father never spoke much about the war. He was born and grew up in Leith, an exurb of northern Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth. When the Battle of Britain began, a great many middle- and upper-class children were evacuated from the cities and sent to live in places in the country. But my father’s family was solidly working class and poor. Grandpa Joe labored in the shipyards on the Firth of Forth as a blacksmith. When war came, the family stayed because that’s where work could be found.
Grandpa balanced with his forge and tongs on the great scaffolding that rose around the ships, pouring and cooling bolts that would be used to tighten the hull-plating, screwed in by riveters while still slightly warm so they would contract as they cooled and so tighten the seal. The men at the dockyards worked incredibly hard. Over the course of the war, the shipyards on the Firth built 42 vessels for the Royal Navy, 14 merchant ships and repaired or refit nearly 3,000 war and merchant vessels. On average, a ship was repaired every day and a new ship launched every six weeks.
Leith’s importance to the war effort is best illustrated in the fact that it was the target of the first Luftwaffe airstrike on Britain. On the 16 October 1939, British fighters engaged a bomber squadron in an action now known as the Battle of the River Forth. The Battle of Britain would officially began the following summer, but it came early for my father and the residents of Leith. From that point forward, bomb shelters and night air raids became an everyday fact of life. Leith was critical to the British war effort and so the Luftwaffe showed it no mercy.
As my father got older, he waxed nostalgic. Not for the war, but for the memories of his boyhood. I suppose that was when I first began to catch glimpses of the world he knew growing up. There were two films in particular that he loved. One was Empire of the Sun, which recounts the experiences of a young Brit held prisoner along with his family in a Japanese internment camp in the Far East. I could see my father’s absolute veneration of all things American mirrored in the young protagonist’s worship of the Americans in the film. But it was Hope and Glory, the story of an urban child, that perhaps gave me the clearest view of what life was like for Blitz kids.
My father would sometimes mention the fires, the ruined buildings. The Luftwaffe were fond of dropping these incendiary devices that would simmer fitfully for a while before exploding and blasting a fiery, napalm-like substance in all directions. Incendiaries were devilishly hard to extinguish, requiring use of a specialized hand-pump and an air warden like Grandpa Joe who was willing to stand out and brave the bombing to water the ordnance with the necessary patience extinguish it. The bullet-shaped nacelles were set atop a brass base embossed with a swastika. My father and his friends used to collect and trade these like hockey cards. Gutted buildings, freshly pummeled by air raids, afforded a playground containing a wonderland of things to smash and shatter (always an intoxicating prospect for young boys). I’m sure that my father and his friends, like the protagonists of Hope and Glory, busted up their share of wardrobe mirrors, crockery, porcelain sinks and toilets in the wreckage of displaced peoples’ homes.
But aside from the occasional allusion or reference to a scene in one of those two films, my father said very little about those years. Until one day aboard an airplane we were taking somewhere. I forget where or when or on which airline, but I remember you could still smoke. My father asked me for a cigarette and I lit one for him, then waved out the match before lighting my own.
“Not two on one match,” he said. “You remembered.”
“Yeah. You taught me that. A World War II thing, wasn’t it?”
He nodded, smoked and said nothing for a minute. Then:
“You know they used to make us sing?”
“The grown-ups. In the bomb shelter.” He turned and looked me directly in the face, something he rarely did. “When the air raid sirens would sound, we’d break like hell for the shelters. You had to get in there right away before they filled up. We’d close the door and then we’d sit and wait. You could hear the bombers approach. A low drone. It was horrible. The bombers cave in waves. So when we heard the drone, the adults would make us start singing.”
“Oh, anything. Football songs. Christmas Carols. ‘God Save the Queen.’ Anything. They did it to keep us from getting scared.”
“Oh, sure!” My mind went back to every World War II movie I’d ever seen. “You mean the sound of the bombs, right? They whistle as they drop.”
“No. Not the whistling. The silence. The whistling meant the bomb was going wide and wasn’t going to hit you. It was the sound of the air against its spoilers. But if it was coming straight down right on top of you, there’d be complete silence. Silence was frightening. We never knew if it was the end of the raid, a pause between waves or curtains. So they made us sing.”
“So you couldn’t tell if a bomb was ever coming on top of you.”
“Sure. What difference would knowing make anyway?”
It was the first unique memory he ever shared with me about the war.
I have been thinking about World War II a lot lately. The nationalist upheaval in the United States bears a frightening resemblance to the growth of Nazism in Hitler’s Germany. Much is being written in periodicals and discussed on social media regarding this unexpected development. A great many concerned, politically-active people from across the social spectrum are uniting to oppose it and I, for one, thank them – particularly the young people. For as the son of a Blitz survivor and all that entails, I can never hear the word Nazi without picturing shattered buildings and fires, and imagining my father wandering the wreckage. For me, there is no separation between the idea of Nazism and the inevitable destruction it wreaks. In the absence of any coherent ideology or logical goals, fascism inevitably leads to social violence which, in turn, leads to war. Those opposing the Nazi movement in America today are involved in taking the necessary preventative steps to deflect that possible future for us all.
I have written elsewhere about the thread of history connecting us to World War II. The Holocaust Survivors were crucial in reminding us all of the importance of continuity and memory. As their generation passes, along with that of the veterans of the war, I find myself in the unaccustomed position of being a custodian of our family’s connective thread to World War II. Since my father’s death, I am the only one left with these memories. So I will share them as time and opportunity allow. Please know that I am only a steward of these tales; they are not my own, but rather come down to me through my family. I think there is value in sharing them here. Because I think it’s important to underline that, no matter how desperate things got during the Blitz and no matter how invincible they seemed, the Nazis lost in the end. If you had told my father that as he played in the wreckage he would not have believed you, just as there are those today who are convinced that white nationalism’s emergence as an enduring political force in America is assured. But we know from history that wherever such movements emerge, good men and women inevitably rise to oppose it. It’s never easy, but it’s absolutely necessary. Because somewhere, children are singing in the bomb shelter.